Back to On the Road with John Tarleton

John Tarleton's Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

by John Tarleton
October 1997



Part I: Pre-Columbian Mexico

Part II: The Spanish Conquest and Colonization

Part III: The War of Independence

Part IV: Post-Independence: Decades of Chaos

Part V: La Reforma

Part VI: The Mexican Revolution

Part VII: Modern Mexico: Arts and Letters

Part VIII: Modern Mexico: Politics of the "Institutional Revolution"


Mexican history is filled with soaring idealism, sordid treachery and bloody despotism. It can be read as either a tragedy or a dark comedy.

The centuries have witnessed a constant parade of Gods, heroes, martyrs and scoundrels from Quetzalcóatl to Hernan Cortes to the rebel priest Hidalgo to Subcommandante Marcos. Starting with the Pre-Hispanic cultures of Meso-America and continuing through the Spanish Conquest, the War for Independence and the turbulent decades that followed, Mexican history has been distinct from that of its neighbor to the north, The United States.

I have been coming to Mexico for seven years. And I wrote these biographical sketches in a Question and Answer format primarily with fellow foreigners in mind.

I wrote this for both those who have traveled to Mexico and may have wandered like myself about all those obscure historical personages for whom the streets and the Metro stations are so frequently named. And I wrote it for those who are intrigued from a distance by Mexico but can make little sense out of the sporadic, decontextualized news stories that fly north whenever this country is plunged into yet another crisis.

These sketches are meant to be an introduction—not a summary—to Mexico’s long and rich history. Hopefully they will stimulate the reader’s curiosity to learn more about this fascinating but little-understood country. Enjoy.

Part I: Pre-Columbian Mexico (?-1519)


Mexican history stretches far back into the past. Corn, the staple of all Meso-American civilizations, was cultivated in Central Mexico as long as 7,000 years ago.

Starting with the Olmecs 3,000 years ago, many sophisticated civilizations had risen and fallen by the time the first Europeans stepped ashore. These were advanced cultures whose languages, customs and religious cosmologies were radically different from anything in the European experience. They offer a fascinating insight into the many directions that human culture and thus human experience can possibly go.

The full-blooded descendants of these Pre-Columbian peoples live throughout Mexico. They number in the millions and speak over 50 languages. And, as Mexico is a predominantly mestizo (mixed-race) nation, almost all Mexicans have at least some indigenous blood in them. A history that starts before recorded time, continues until this day and on into the future.

CHOICES:   a. Huitzilopochtli   b. 8 Deer   c. Quetzalcóatl   d. Pacal   e. Itzcóatl

  1. I am one of the most mysterious figures in Mexican history. According to legend, I was a fair-skinned God (with blue eyes and a red beard) who came from the East.

    The legends go on to say that I taught the indigenous people their calendar and how to plant corn. It is also said that I persuaded the people to sacrifice snakes and butterflies in place of human beings. My enlightened rule angered the priests who became less important when they no longer had human hearts to cut open.

    The priests plotted against me and I was chased out of Central Mexico. I returned to the coast, where I had first appeared, and set sail to the east vowing to return again someday. The priests later installed me in their pantheon of Gods and made my angry vow into prophecy.

    According to historians, this legend first appeared in the 10th Century. Was I a European (perhaps a Viking) who had wandered off course? Or, the Apostle Thomas, as one noted cleric claimed at the end of the 18th Century? Or, just an extravagant myth woven out of the people's collective imagination?

    My name is _________________.

  2. I presided over the Golden Age of the Mayan city-state of Palenque. Palenque emerged out of lush tropical rainforest and its elaborate temples and pyramids overlooked a plain that stretched for 50 miles. Our brightly stuccoed buildings shimmered in the jungle sunlight.

    I was crowned king in 615 A.D. at the age of 12. Europe, as you may remember, was in its Dark Ages. Like the other Mayan peoples of what is now Southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, we had highly developed art, astronomy, agriculture, mathematics (including the number zero) and hieroglyphic writing, but no wheel. We, instead, were obsessed with time. This is what our astronomer-priests spent much of their time doing — keeping track of time through the movement of celestial bodies. We believed that the worlds was destroyed and recreated in 3114 B.C. and that this will happen again on January 11, 2013.

    Like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, my royal family practiced intermarriage and had giant pyramids constructed to serve as royal tombs. This practice of intermarriage contributed to the deformities that our subjects took to be signs of divinity. I was born with a club foot. My mother had a misshapen head. I married both my sister and my mother. And my son, Chan Bahlum, was born with six fingers on one hand and six toes on both his feet.

    We were corn growers. We believed that the Gods made the first men of corn. We were fascinated by jade and made our finest jewelry from it. Our warriors played a ferocious ceremonial ball game (that was a cross between your soccer and basketball) called pok-a-tok. The winning team was entitled to strip the audience of its jewelry and the losing team was sacrificed to the fertility gods.

    The pyramids were giant public works projects. I spent decades overseeing the construction of my own pyramid. I was buried 80 feet below the Temple of Inscriptions along with personal items, various treasures including a jade mask that covered my face and a half-dozen freshly sacrificed slaves to accompany my spirit through the underworld. I lay undisturbed there for almost 1,300 years until archaeologists uncovered my mummy in 1952.

    My name is ______________.

  3. Son of 5 Alligator, I was the legendary king of the Mixtecs, a fiercely independent people who lived in the Land of the Clouds (now known as Oaxaca).

    I became king when I was 19 and then preceded to conquer 100 towns, marry five princesses and unite the Mixtec people for the first and only time in our long history. My heroics were recorded 300 years later in deerskin books. I won every battle I fought until I was 52. Then I was captured and sacrificed to the Gods by my rivals. Bummer.

    My name is __________________.

  4. I was the first of nine Aztec kings.

    Prophecy foretold that our wandering people would one day settle a great city on the site where we would witness an eagle sitting atop a cactus with a serpent in its talons. Our people wandered in the desert for decades, and then along the shores of Lake Texcoco in Anahuac or what is now known as the Central Valley of Mexico. We relished human sacrifice and the other tribes wanted nothing to do with us.

    Finally, we spotted the magic sign — the eagle atop the cactus with the serpent in its grasp — out on a small island in the middle of the lake. And we settled right on that spot. It was the Year 1325 A.D. And there we built the legendary city of Tenótchtitlan.

    By the time the Spaniards arrived 200 years later, it was a series of islands connected by an elaborate system of canals with causeways reaching to the mainland. It was the largest city in the world. It was also doomed by an ancient curse that the Plumed-Serpent God had cast upon it long before my grandfather's grandfather was born.

    My name is _________________.

  5. I was the Aztec Sun God and I had a voracious appetite. The Aztecs worshipped me above all their other Gods. They built their largest pyramid in the center of Tenótchtitlan in my honor. And there, atop the temple, they sacrificed hundreds of people a day in service to me.

    Like all the ancient Meso-American peoples, the Aztecs were obsessed with time. They watched me rise in the morning with great relief and set in the evening with grave concern. Seeing how weak I was at day's end led their priests to believe that I was anemic. If I didn't rise again in the morning, time would stop and the world would end. The Aztecs believed four previous worlds ended this way and that the fifth one, which they were in, would do the same.

    Thus they fed me a constant diet of human hearts. The Spaniard Cortés would later object to this. But at the time, nobody saw anything unusual in this. The Aztecs built a warrior society that was organized for conquest which provided more human tribute for me and, coincidentally, more treasure for them.

    The captives were well-fed before they came to me. At last, they were walked up the steps of my pyramid where they were greeted by priests bearing well-sharpened obsidian knives. Four priests would hold down a captive and the fifth would cut open his chest, remove the beating heart and offer it to me. It never occurred to them to just buy me an alarm clock with a snooze bar.

    My name is ____________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part II: The Spanish Conquest and Colonization (1519-1810)


The Spanish Conquest of Mexico from 1519-1521 is one history's most astonishing episodes.

Only a few decades before, Spain had been a poor, divided backwater country on what was then a backwater continent. But, with the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and the subsequent defeat of the Moors in 1492, Spain was re-unified for the first time in over seven centuries. And starting with Columbus's accidental discovery of the Americas in that same year, Spain began to assert itself as the world's first global superpower.

The collision of the Spaniards and the Aztecs was the collision of two alien cultures that had evolved over thousands of years, each unknown to the other. Imagine the fear and the wonder that these two contending peoples must have inspired in each other!

Though the Spaniards were vastly outnumbered and thousands of miles from home, they were at an advantage from the onset with their superior military technology, with the horse (which the Aztecs had never seen) and with the knowledge they quickly gained of the Aztecs' weaknesses, especially their religiously-inspired mythology.

This collision of two cultures was ultimately to be the fusion of two distinct cultures into one. Modern-day Mexico is the ambivalent, melancholy child of this union. It's history begins with the arrival in November of 1519 of 11 strange-looking boats off the coast of what is now modern-day Veracruz.

CHOICES:   a. Moctezuma   b. Fray Bartólome de Las Casas   c. Hernan Cortés   d. Sor Juana Inez de La Cruz   e. Juan Diego   f. Dona Malinche   g. Charles I   h. Cuauhtémoc  i. Smallpox, Measles and the Bubonic Plague  j. Antonio de Mendoza  k. The Virgin of Guadalupe

  1. I am the Spanish Conquistador who conquered the Aztecs in 1521. I grew up in the poor Spanish province of Extramadura, the son of a distinguished gentleman who had fallen on hard times. Since I learned of Columbus’s discovery of The New World, I had dreamed of winning gold and glory for myself.

    I was in Hispaniola and Haiti from 1504 to 1519. There, we heard tales of a fabulous kingdom on the mainland to our west. I raised the funds to outfit my expedition by mortgaging my estate in Cuba, buying supplies on credit and begging from my friends. A gambler by instinct, I loved to play cards and dice.

    I set sail in February 1519 with 508 men, 16 horses and a handful of cannon. I was 36 years-old. I had slipped out of Cuba just before my rival, Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba could have me arrested and returned to Spain in chains. Upon reaching the shores of Mexico, the first order I gave was that our boats be burned. There was no going back.

    The natives thought I was the bearded, fair-skinned God called Quetzalcóatl who had returned after many centuries to restore himself to power. They thought my 500 armored soldiers were lesser Gods and that our horses were Gods as well. They were terrified of our muskets. The sound and smell of exploding gunpowder frightened them as much as the musket balls themselves.

    The natives brought us many gifts but never enough gold. They told us we could find far more gold in Tenótchtitlan, the capitol of the Aztecs. I was accompanied by Dona Malinche, an Aztec woman who spoke both Nahuatl and Spanish, which she had learned from a Spaniard who had shipwrecked on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1511.

    She was of noble blood and knew the Aztecs well. She was my lover, translator and most trusted advisor. She filled me in on the Quetzalcóatl myth and faithfully guarded the secret that I was a mere mortal. She had been sold into an arranged marriage with the chief of a neighboring tribe when she was a young woman. Now, like a lot of other people in Mexico, she was ready to avenge herself against the Aztecs.

    We marched from what is now Veracruz to Mexico City and arrived on the outskirts of Tenótchtitlan in November of 1519. What I saw when we crossed over the mountain pass and gazed down upon the valley below was the most breathtaking sight I had ever seen: a great city with more people than any European city of that age that was built on a series of man-made islands in the middle of a crystal-clear lake. They grew their food in the water using elaborate hydroponic gardens. The air above the city was clear and freshly scented by pine trees. It would be another four centuries before the first puff of auto exhaust would cloud the sky.

    The great city shimmered in the sunlight as if it were made of pure gold. Upon witnessing this, I was possessed of a single, clear desire: to sack this great city and carry off as much gold and silver as I possibly could.

    Moctezuma, the Aztec King, received me as a God and put up my men and I in his palaces. We were horrified by the Aztecs’s religious practices. The royal palace was in the center of the city near the great pyramids where the sacrifices took place. The Aztecs were uninterested in our Christian faith. Instead, they were always going off about the Death of the Sun and the End of the World. Couldn’t make any sense of it.

    The Aztecs gradually lost confidence in us. My men couldn’t restrain their own greed. Malinche would tell me at night that the skeptics were asking 'How can these men be Gods?' Their king, however, still didn’t have a clue.

    However, when my lieutenant Pedro Alvorado massacred a crowd of people in the main plaza on one of their most important religious holidays, the whole city was infuriated. The king tried to calm them down, but the crowd jeered and threw rocks at him. We were in trouble and made plans to sneak out of the city at night. Before leaving, we strangled Moctezuma to death. The Aztecs were onto us. On June 20, 1520 we were nearly all massacred. Many of my men were killed in the fighting or captured and then sacrificed. Others drowned while trying to swim to shore loaded down with gold. This was La Noche Triste (The Night of Sorrows).

    We retreated and regrouped with our allies. The Aztecs pursued us and we fought them a short ways outside of Tenótchtitlan. Though outnumbered, we triumphed with the aid of superior technology and The Virgin Mary, whose standard we followed into battle. The Aztecs fought valiantly and may have fared better if their warriors had been more interested in killing us than capturing us. For the Aztec warrior, the greatest honor was to capture another warrior in battle and to later offer him in sacrifice to their insatiable Sun God.

    The Aztecs retreated to their island city after this defeat. We would return to Tenótchtitlan a second time and lay siege to it for three months. Finally, on August 13, 1521 Tenótchtitlan fell to my army. The great city and its fabulous empire were ours. We gave thanks and claimed it in the name of the King of Spain and Christendom.

    My name is________________.

  2. I was the Aztec God King who greeted Quetzalcóatl and the other fair-skinned Gods from the East in 1519. According to our legends, Quetzalcóatl would return from the East to avenge the poor treatment he had received centuries before. Our priests had prophesied that he would return in the Year 1 Reed, the year in which our 52-year calendar starts anew.

    1519 happened to be that year. 1 Reed had passed without trouble in 1467. But, many ominous omens occurred in the years leading up to 1519. Stones rained down from the sky. A three-headed comet appeared in the sky. And, a temple atop one of our largest pyramids inexplicably caught fire and burned to the ground. The Gods seemed to be angry with us. And then one day we received word that Quetzalcóatl had in fact landed just south of what is now Veracruz. Our worst nightmares come true!

    The Gods had boats as large as castles and rode atop deer that were as tall as houses. They covered themselves in a strange metallic skin and carried firesticks that made a thunderclap each timed they were fired.

    I consulted with the priests and we decided that it would be best to appease these mysterious Gods. We sent emissaries bearing gifts. The fair-skinned Gods killed them with their firesticks as they approached, though they kept their gifts.

    Quetzalcóatl and his 300 lesser Gods insisted on marching to Tenótchtitlan, the fabled city that was the capitol of our empire. Quetzalcóatl made many allies along the way including including our ancient enemies the Tlaxcalans. At his side as well was Dona Malinche, a noblewoman who had been sold into slavery some years before.

    The other indigenous tribes hated us for what they referred to as our cruelty. Human hearts were the imperial tribute we demanded. Our priests insisted that we had to sacrifice hundreds of people a day in order to appease the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli. If the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun didn’t run red with blood, Huitzilopochtli would grow anemic and finally cease to rise in the mornings. And that would be the end of the 5th World, the one in which we are presently living.

    I greeted Quetzalcóatl on November 8th, 1519 in the center of Tenótchtitlan near where the Pino Suarez Metro station is today. I made him and his followers honored guests in my palaces. They worshipped a strange god — a naked man who had been nailed to a wooden cross. We thought it was barbarous but said nothing to our strange guests. Anyhow, their true devotion lay elsewhere.

    They concerned themselves with their strange god once a week. But they asked us about gold and silver day and night. We showered it upon them abundantly. We didn’t realize at first how greedy they were. We thought they were foolish. Anybody knows that jade and quetzal feathers are worth far more than gold.

    Still, Quetzalcóatl didn’t trust us. He had me imprisoned inside my palace. When some of his troops rode into the main plaza on one of our holiest feast days and massacred hundreds of persons, my people were outraged and they subsequently revolted.

    I appeared on the palace balcony and urged my people to live in peace with the fair-skinned Gods. I was bombarded with rocks and rotten fruit and had to retreat back into the palace under my guests’ shields. My people no longer believed I was a god. Nor the bearded man who said he was Quetzalcóatl.

    The fair-skinned Gods strangled me to death shortly thereafter and tried to flee the city with all their gold.

    My name is______________________.

  3. I was Cortés’s first great conquest. I am the young Indian woman who was Cortés’s guide, translator, diplomatic strategist and lover during his Conquest of Mexico.

    Though of noble blood, I was sold into slavery at a young age by my stepmother. I was later married to a village chief who in turn bestowed me and 20 other women upon the Spaniards shortly after their arrival in our territory.

    Cortés and his soldiers found themselves in an alien, hostile land. He turned to me for insights and advice at every perilous moment. I was the one who first explained the Myth of Quetzalcóatl to Cortés and then faithfully guarded the secret that he was a mere mortal. In turn, he baptized me in the Christian faith and made me his constant companion. His success would have been impossible without my assistance. I later bore him a son named Martin.

    In the eyes of modern-day nationalists, I am the ultimate traitor and symbol of Mexicans’ willingness to prostrate themselves before foreigners. Though I was a real flesh and blood figure, I have been transformed over time into La Llorona, the grief-stricken ghost who wonders about disconsolate at night with her hair flying in the wind and her dress in disarray; grieving for the lost Indian children I have betrayed.

    My name is ________________________.

  4. I was the son-in-law of Moctezuma and the last of the Aztec kings. Whereas my father-in-law was weak and vacillating in front of the Spaniards, I was ready to fight them. In my eyes they were closer to being devils than gods.

    When Moctezuma was captured and then later deposed by the Spaniards, the people turned to me for leadership. I led the battle that drove the Spaniards out of Tenótchtitlan the first time. We killed many of them and offered the beating hearts of 72 captives to Huitzilopochtli. Spanish historians later referred to it as the Night of Sorrows. For us it was a night of great celebration.

    Unfortunately for us, the Spaniards would return with their Tlaxcalan allies and lay siege to Tenótchtitlan. We fought to the end. But by the end, the Spaniards had cut off our drinking water and our people were eating insects, worms and tree bark. The city fell on August 13, 1521 and I was captured trying to flee across Lake Texcoco on a canoe. Taken captive, I was baptized in the name of the Christian God and executed on the third day.

    The question that people would ask for centuries is a simple one: How did so mighty an empire collapse so quickly?

    My name is _____________________.

  5. I was the 16th Century champion of Mexico’s Indians and the first well-known critic of what was to become a common policy in the colonization of the Americas: genocide.

    I first came to The New World as an 18 year-old novice priest in 1502. I witnessed the horrific treatment of the natives on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and The Dominican Republic) and spoke out strongly against these practices. With their gentle, pleasant ways and their willingness to share everything they had, the natives seemed far closer to God than my fellow Spaniards.

    I wrote famous works such as A History of the Indies and A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and I edited the journal from Christopher Columbus's original voyage to the New World. I was always a devout Catholic and a loyal subject of the king. I wrote in the hope of awakening the moral conscience of my people, especially the king. I was certain that if he knew the full extent of the atrocities being perpetrated against his subjects, the Indians, he would order them halted immediately.

    I came to Mexico in 1530s. After The Conquest, Cortés and the other conquistadors divided up the lands for themselves and made the Indians their virtual slaves. This was called the Encomienda System. All of this was carried out in the name of Christianity, as our stated purpose for being in Nueva España was to instruct the Indians in the ways of the Christian faith. What a lesson they were getting!

    In time I would become the bishop of Ciudad Real (now San Christóbal de Las Casas). For years I spoke out tirelessly against the abuses that the Indians suffered. This exploitation, I cried out, had been ordained not by God but by men. I believed in what would later be called a “preferential option for the poor”. I made the large landowners uncomfortable. They would’ve called me a “Marxist” or a “Communist” but they didn’t know those words, yet. In 1542 I persuaded King Charles I to issue royal decrees abolishing the Encomienda System.

    You can imagine what an uproar that caused. So many powerful interests had a stake in exploiting the Indians. It was like telling vampires that they couldn’t suck blood anymore.

    In 1546 the King reversed the previous decrees and re-institutionalized the Encomienda System. I died in 1576 at the age of 92. The city where I was bishop now carries my name.

    My name is_______________________.

  6. I am Mexico’s patron saint and its most popular religious figure.

    I first appeared in Mexico in December 1531 to the humble Indian peasant Juan Diego. The Bishop of Mexico City didn’t believe Juan Diego’s story. So the next time I appeared before Juan Diego, I sent him along with a bundle of yellow roses, which never grow during that time of year. When Juan Diego unrolled the roses in front of the bishop, he discovered that my image had been emblazoned on his white shawl. It was a miracle.

    The bishop was convinced at last. He promptly followed my command to build a shrine at Tepayac, where I had appeared to Juan Diego. This was formerly a holy site for Tenontzin, the Aztec Goddess of Childbirth.

    Nowadays, my image can be found not only in every church, but in bus stations, marketplaces, restaurants, etc. as well as in millions of homes. When someone falls ill or has a dying relative or desperately needs to win the lottery, they pray to me first and remember to leave a modest donation at any one of my thousands of shrines.

    Mexico commemorates my miraculous appearance every year on December 12th. Millions of people travel to my shrine in Tepayac to pray and say the rosary. The people know that, as I am the Mother of God, I will look upon their requests with an equal love and generosity.

    My name is________________.

  7. I was a humble Indian peasant who was out gathering wood one day when the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before me.

    Bishop Zumarraga didn’t believe a word of my story. He thought I was crazy. It’s tough when you know something that no one else knows. Everyone tells you that you are wrong and after awhile you start to doubt yourself. Especially if you are an Indian, because the Spaniards were always telling us how we didn’t know anything, how we were so backwards that they came all the way here in their big ships to baptize us and teach us about Jesus.

    “Little brothers in the faith” was what they called us, though we would’ve been lucky if they treated us with half as much regard as their animals....Well anyway, The Virgin appeared before me a second time. She was glowing real bright and this time she gave me a bundle of roses to take back to the Bishop. She said she wanted a shrine built right on the spot where she was standing. It was December of 1531 and everybody knows that roses don’t grow at that time of year.

    When I went to see the Bishop again, he rolled his eyes like 'oh no, it’s that crazy pissant Juan Diego again'.

    But when he saw that I was carrying roses, he became curious. Even a bishop knows that roses don’t grow in December. I unrolled the blanket that I was carrying the roses in and the most amazing thing happened: the blanket was emblazoned with the image of The Virgin herself!

    Everyone was shocked. They were certain that I couldn’t have done this myself.

    “It’s a miracle,” the Bishop murmured to himself. Only 10 years after The Conquest, The Virgin had appeared in Mexico. Not to the Spaniards however. But to a poor Indian. Me.

    Bishop Zumarraga agreed immediately to build the shrine that she had requested. Back then, it was well to the north of Mexico City. Now, it has been swallowed up by the city. It is surrounded by shops and traffic and vendors shouting “tacos, tacos, five for four pesos.”. But still the people come by the millions.

    Those who still don’t believe in The Miracle say it was all a hoax. That The Church made it up to deceive the gullible Indians. That, get this, I probably never even existed. Hah! It’s like when the Bishop and everybody else refused to believe my story about The Virgin. I know I existed, no matter what anybody tells you. I really did.

    My name is_____________________.

  8. Each of us was many times smaller than a grain of sand, yet killed more indigenous people than all the Spaniards combined. We had been the scourge of Europe for centuries. By the 1500s, the Spaniards had developed some resistance to us. The natives had no such luck. It is estimated that within 100 years of the Conquest I had killed off as much as 90% of Nueva España’s indigenous population.

    Our names are _______________________________.

  9. I was the Viceroy of Nueva España from 1535 to 1550. During my reign we introduced livestock from the Iberian Peninsula - pigs, sheep, goats, cows and horses - to Nueva España. We were determined to make this strange heathen land as much like Spain as possible. First with our golden cathedrals, our plazas and our Holy Inquisition. And then with our economy and our agricultural practices. Likewise, Nueva España was organized as a pigmentocracy with us the superior, light-skinned Spaniards invariably on top and darker-skinned mixed bloods and Indians underneath.

    The Indians had little in the way of domesticated animals; only turkeys and a hairless species of dog. Our livestock quickly devoured the native grasses and plants and compacted the soils. We hardly noticed or cared. It was one more thing to remind us of our native Spain.

    The wealth and the natural resources of this exotic New World seemed inexhaustible. As Viceroy, I was in charge of organizing the plunder. I enriched myself many times over while in public office; setting in place another venerable Mexican tradition.

    I answered only to the King of Spain himself.

    My name is________________________________.

  10. I was the King of Spain from 1515 to 1558. And, I was succeeded by my son Phillip II. During my reign, Spain became the world's first truly global empire.

    With the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas in Peru, we became the wealthiest nation in the world as well. Returning galleons filled our storerooms high with mountains of gold and silver. Our colonies were organized to provide us with all our other necessities: foodstuffs, wool, leather, dyes, etc.

    We in turn used this vast new wealth to expand our armies and fight long, disastrous wars in Italy and The Netherlands and at sea against the British. At some point our expenses began to exceed our revenues. But, we weren't well-versed in double-ledger accounting and so we paid little attention at first. By the end of the 16th Century, we were bankrupt and defeated militarily as well by the British. We managed to hold onto our American colonies for another 200 years. However, our brief heyday as a global power had already come and gone.

    My name is ____________.

  11. I was one of the most brilliant minds of 17th Century Nueva España. I was an illegitimate Creole child who came to the attention of the Viceroy's wife. I was brought to the Viceroy’s palace, received the best possible education and went onto become a renowned writer. I was also a woman.

    I became a Jeronymite nun in order not to marry. To marry was to become a piece of chattel. I dazzled men with my beauty and my intelligence. And I frightened them as well. We would debate everything. And then they would say: “Ah, but women aren’t equal to men”

    And I would nod my head and say: “That’s right. They’re superior.”

    I wrote love lyrics, morality plays, dramatic comedies and critical essays. My most famous works are Hombres Necios a poetic critique of men's hypocrisy and Respuesta a Sor Filotea, an essay defending a woman's right to education.

    The Church became upset as my works circulated more and more. Finally, I was accused and then convicted of heresy by the Holy Inquisition. I was given two choices: either burn all my works and cease writing, or be burned at the stake myself.

    I chose the former. My physical body lived another 20 years. But something inside of me died and went up in smoke with all my poems. It wasn't easy being a feminist in the 17th Century. I now appear on Mexico’s 200-peso bill.

    My name is _______________________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part III: The War for Independence


Hermetically sealed off from outside influences, the Spanish colony of Nueva España drowsed through close to three centuries of colonial rule. Spain’s language, religion, customs and rigid class structure were all imprinted during this time. Though the great majority of the people (Indians and mixed-blood mestizos) lived in dire poverty and had no rights, Spanish military might was never seriously contested.

But by the end of the 18th Century, new ideas of liberty were afoot in the world. The divine right of kings was being questioned and then overthrown. Revolutions were fought and won in England’s American colonies and in France. Finally, Nueva España awoke from its long colonial slumber. Weakened by European wars, the Spanish monarchy was tottering by 1810. Insurrections were underway throughout Spanish America. Into this vacuum stepped a rebel priest with a flair for oratory. A War for Independence that began with a midnight call to arms ended ambiguously 11 years later. A new nation was created but much else was left unchanged.

CHOICES: a. Vicente Guerrero   b. Nicolas Bravo   c. Ignacio Allende   d. Fray Servando Teresa de Meir   e. Jose Maria Morelos   f. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla   g. Augustin de Iturbide  h. Francisco Javier Mina

  1. I am one of Mexico’s most beloved heroes. In the early 1800s I was a maverick Creole (Mexican born of Spanish descent) priest who cultivated honey bees and silkworms. I greatly enjoyed dance and theatre and was fond of reading radical new ideas arriving from France.

    I was disgusted by the misery in which the great majority of colonial subjects lived. After three centuries of colonial rule, the Spaniards were accustomed to having everything. They weren’t going to change their ways.

    At midnight on September 16th 1810 I rang the church bells in the center of Dolores and called upon all patriots to rise up and overthrow the Spaniards. This went down in history as El Grito and is celebrated every year as a national holiday.

    I started with 600 men but soon our ranks had swollen to 80,000. We had nothing more than sticks, shovels, pitchforks and machetes. Following the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle, we captured San Miguel, Celaya and Salamanca without resistance. In Guanajuato we captured the Spanish fort and put the city to the torch.

    We won another decisive battle at Monte de Cruces in October 1810. At that point we could have walked into Mexico City and put an end to the war. I instead hesitated and retreated in order to consult with the Virgin of Guadalupe. I issued various proclamations including one that immediately outlawed all slavery.

    During that time the Spanish regrouped and defeated our insurgent army at Aculco and Puente de Calderón. I was captured in March 1811 and shot by a firing squad later that year. My head was placed on an iron spike outside the fort in Guanajuato as a message to all who dared to resist Spanish authority.

    My name is_____________________________.

  2. I was a 31 year-old Army officer who joined the Insurgents in 1810 and became one of the main leaders in the early battles for independence. I was captured in March 1811 and shot by a firing squad later that year. The artsy tourist town of San Miguel now bares my name.

    My name is ____________________.

  3. I was a priest-turned-revolutionary. I led the Insurgent Forces in the mountains of Southern Mexico in what are now the states of Michóacan, Guerrero, Puebla, Morelos and Oaxaca. I was widely recognized as a brilliant though ruthless organizer and tactician. When my followers tried to call me as “Your Highness”, I told them to cut it out and address me as “Servant of the Nation”. I was captured in November 1815 and shot by a firing squad. I can now be found on Mexico’s 50-peso bill.

    My name is____________________.

  4. I fought with the Insurgents in Southern Mexico during the War of Independence. In 1812 the Spaniards captured my father, Don Leonardo. Our army offered to exchange 800 prisoners-of-war if the viceroy would spare my father’s life. Nonetheless, my father was shot by a firing squad.

    In reprisal my commander Morelos ordered 300 of the 800 Spanish prisoners-of-war to be shot by a firing squad. When they were brought out before me, I told them what had happened to my father. I then asked them what they thought I should do. The condemned men were too frightened to say anything.

    I then told them: “My father was innocent, and I will not have more innocent blood shed in his name. You all are free!”

    I later became Mexico’s first vice-president.

    My name is _______________.

  5. I was a renegade priest who was in constant trouble with both civil and ecclesiastical authorities during the final years of Spanish rule.

    I preached that Quetzalcóatl, the mysterious fair-skinned God who had come from the East, was in fact the Apostle Thomas. Thus, I insisted that the Spanish colonial presence was invalid as the Indians had received the Holy Gospel years before and had no need for the Spaniards to stick around and instruct them in the ways of the Christian faith.

    At various times I was exiled to Spain, Portugal, England, France and Italy. I escaped from jail seven times and engaged in more conspiracies than I can remember. When I died in 1827, Mexico was free at last from Spanish tyranny.

    My name is____________________.

  6. I arrived in Mexico in April 1817 with 300 men in order to fight on the side of The Insurgents. I had previously led an insurrection in my native Spain against King Fernando VII. I was defeated and had to flee to England. There, I acquired financing for my Mexican adventure and set sail for the New World.

    After some early victories, I was defeated and captured by the Spaniards. I was shot by a firing squad in November 1817.

    My name is _______________.

  7. After Morelos was captured in 1815, I took over as the leader of the Insurgent Forces in Southern Mexico until we won the War of Independence in 1821. I became the president of Mexico in 1825 and again in 1829. In 1829 my vice-president overthrew me. I retreated to the mountains of Southern Mexico in order to start another guerrilla war. This time, however, my luck ran out and I was captured. I was shot in Oaxaca by a firing squad in February 1831.

    My name is __________________.

  8. I was renowned for my cruelty during the War of Independence while fighting as an officer in the Spanish Army. When I saw at the last moment that the Spanish position was weakening, I switched sides and joined the Insurgents. I led our triumphant forces into Mexico City in September 1821. My followers made me Emperor for Life in 1822. I was deposed in 1823 and in 1824 I was shot by a firing squad. Bummer.

    My name is _______________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part IV: Post-Independence Years: From Bad to Worse


Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 only after a disastrous 11-year war. Most of the original Insurgents were dead. The new country’s class structure was just as rigid as it was when it was a Spanish colony. The government was dominated by criollos, the pure-blooded offspring or descendants of Spanish parents. The two most powerful institutions — the Army and the Church — jealously guarded their privileges.

Day-to-day life was dominated by ignorance, poverty and the chaos routinely stirred up by the political fighting between rival generals. This unhappy state of affair culminated in the defeat at the hands of the United States in the Mexican War.

Too weak and divided to adequately defend itself, Mexico had to watch its neighbor amputate close to half its national territory. And still the chaos continued.

CHOICES: a. Valentin Gomez Farias   b. James Polk   c. Los Niños Heroes (The Child Heroes)   d. Alberto Bustamente   e. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

  1. I was president of Mexico a record 11 times between 1833 and 1855 and amazingly enough I never ended up in front of a firing squad.

    Daring and valiant in battle, I led Mexico from one military disaster to another; losing first Texas in 1836 and then nearly half the country when my army was defeated by the invading Americans in 1847. I sold the strip of land that is now Southern Mexico and Arizona in 1853 for $5 million in order to finance my 11th and final administration.

    Over my long career I fought both for the conservatives and the liberals; both for and against the Catholic Church. What my supporters never quite understood was that like all masterful politicians I stood for nothing more (or less) than my own ambition.

    I lost the lower part of my left leg in the Battle of Veracruz. During my final reign as El Presidente, I had my amputated leg enshrined and put on public display in the Metropolitan Cathedral.

    I went in exile to the United States in 1855. While there I popularized chewing gum which comes from the chicle tree that is native to Southern Mexico. I returned from exile in 1872 and died four years later of natural causes at the ripe old age of 86. What a long, full life I led!

    My name is____________________________________.

  2. Mexico lay in ruins when I became President in 1833.

    The country was bankrupt and debilitated by constant military uprisings. Both industry and agriculture were idle. There was no public infrastructure. Highway robbers made travel perilous. The government had few reliable sources of revenue except the loans that the European powers extended us at exorbitant interest rates.

    The Church and the Army were the two most powerful (and unproductive) institutions in our society. The Army ate up 80% of the government's yearly budget. And the Church was the largest property holder.

    I came up with the brilliant idea that we should redistribute the scarce resources that were being absorbed by the Church and the Army and use them for the overall improvement of society, especially public education. I was deposed within a matter of weeks.

    I would become president several more times and the spirit of my reforms would be enacted in the Liberal Reforms of 1857.

    My name is _______________________.

  3. I was President of Mexico for a second time in 1838 during the Pastry War.

    The French were on our ass to pay up for damages suffered during the military uprisings and public disorder that were common to that era. They even wanted us to pay for damages done to a French-owned bakery (hence the name the Pastry War).

    We, of course, had no money. So our two nations went to war. After the French shelled Veracruz, we reached an agreement: Mexico would pay for the damages and France would extend us another loan in order that we could do so.

    I was deposed in 1841 by Santa Anna.

    My name is_____________________________.

  4. I was elected president of the United States in 1844 on a pro-slavery platform and by 1846 I had created the necessary pretexts for starting a war with Mexico.

    The U.S. was booming and needed more territory. It was during my administration that the phrase “Manifest Destiny” came into vogue. We were going to the Pacific Ocean and nothing was going to stop us. It was a shoddy war. Mexico was in disarray. More U.S. soldiers were killed by diseases than Mexican bullets. For our troubles, we gained what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and a big slab of Texas.

    My name is President ___________________.

  5. The six of us were young cadets at the Colegio Militar when The United States invaded Mexico in 1846.

    A year later we fought against the North Americans in the war’s final battle at Chapultepec Castle in the middle of Mexico City. We fought hard. But finally the enemy stormed the castle. Rather than surrender, the six of us wrapped ourselves in the Mexican flag and jumped to our deaths from the castle walls. Though we would go down (literally) in defeat, neither we nor our flag would be captured.

    We are the_________________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part V: La Reforma


The old order of things was discredited in Mexico after the disastrous war with the United States. Something had to be done if Mexico was going to continue to exist as a country. But the question was what?

This never-ending dispute was played out between Conservatives who believed in a strong central government and a strong, traditional Catholic Church and the Liberals who wanted a decentralized federal government and a weakened Catholic Church. The Army brokered these disputes, throwing its lot in with first one side then another depending on where it saw its advantage to lie.

The Liberals gained the upper hand in 1857 and proclaimed a set of reform laws directly attacking the power of the Church. Ten years of civil war followed. The Conservatives solution to Mexico’s woes was to import an European prince to sit on its throne. This scheme failed in the end and Mexico was restored as a sovereign, independent nation.

CHOICES: a. Ignacio Zaragoza   b. Emperor Maximilian   c. Benito Juarez  d. Tomas Mejia and Miguel Miramón

  1. I was a Hapsburg prince who arrived from Austria in 1864 to become the Emperor of Mexico.

    I designed the Paseo de Reforma, wrote a book on proper court etiquette and decreed many beneficent laws during my brief reign. The conservatives who invited me over were Jonesing hard for another Quetzalcóatl. When I arrived in 1864, they assured me that I was just what this confused and turbulent land needed: a strong European prince to guide its destiny.

    Only later did I discover that most of the rest of the country felt differently. I was abandoned by my supporters, captured and finally shot by a firing squad on an arid hillside outside of Querétero in July 1867.

    My name is _________________.

  2. I was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian who became one of Mexico’s greatest presidents. Born to a poor family in San Pablo Gualatao, Oaxaca on the first day of spring in 1806, I ran away from home when I was 12 years-old. I was adopted by an elderly bookbinder in Oaxaca City who made sure that I was able to pursue a good education.

    With my own life as an example, I always adamantly believed that every human being has the desire to learn and to express him or herself. Upon becoming President in 1857, I put into place a new Constitution that curtailed the power of the Catholic Church in civil society. Years of war and chaos followed between my Liberal Party and the Conservatives.

    At one point, in 1858, I ended up in front of a firing squad only to have one of my comrades talk my executioners into putting down their arms and joining our cause. When the French invaded our country in 1862 and imposed a European prince as the Emperor of Mexico, my government and I were on the run once again. However, we ultimately defeated the French and I returned to power in 1867. I continued as the President of Mexico until my death in 1872.

    My birthday (March 21) is a national holiday, and I can be found on the 20 peso bill.

    My name is _________________.

  3. I led Liberal forces to victory against the invading French Army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. That victory is still celebrated by Mexicans everywhere as the Cinco de Mayo holiday.

    My name is ______________________.

  4. We were the Conservative generals who led the defense of the Second Mexican Empire against Juarez and the Liberals. We believed that what Mexico needed was a traditional European monarchy. We were defeated, captured and shot alongside the Emperor Maximillian by a firing squad on July 15, 1867.

    Our names are__________________&___________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part VI: The Mexican Revolution


Measured in the price of corn, the average Mexicans standard of living was lower in 1910 than it had been in 1810. It cost more to rent a mule for the day than a man. Most of the nation's productive assets were in the hands of a tiny elite and foreign interests. Mexico, at the beginning of the 20th Century, was one of the poorest and most backward lands on Earth.

The social revolution that finally exploded was one of the most violent and incoherent of all the great revolutions of the 20th Century. Competing armies fell on each other with an almost tribal ferocity, sweeping back and forth across the land and leaving death and destruction everywhere in their wake. An estimated 2 million people out of a population of 16 million were killed in the fighting.

It was "an excess of squandering," said the Mexican philosopher Octavio Paz, "an explosion of joy and hopelessness...of suicide and life, all of them mixed together." It was a Mexican Fiesta of Death.

Yet, out of all this violence came a definitive break with the past. A 400 year-old feudal order was shattered and the rise of a vibrant, modern state began. Here are the stories of some of the people who shaped this defining moment in Mexican history.

CHOICES: a. Emiliano Zapata  b. Alvaro Obregón   c. Venustiano Carranza  d. Henry Lane Wilson   e. Pancho Villa   f. Ricardo Flores Magón   g. Victoriano Huerta   h. Francisco Madero   i. Ambrose Bierce   j. Porfirio Diaz   k. Jose Pino Suarez   l. Mariano Azuela

  1. I had myself installed as President in 1877 on the promise to not seek re-election. I then went on to become the dictator of Mexico for the next 34 years.

    Ruling with an iron hand, I was able to put an end at last to the law and disorder that plagued our country for decades. Foreign investors flocked to Mexico and the country experienced unprecedented economic growth with new railroads, new telegraphs, new factories, etc.

    Almost all of the benefits went to those who had money to invest. By 1910, 96% of the land was in the hands of 1% of the population. That’s progress...

    During my 34-year reign, I suppressed all dissent. I was overthrown by the people and went into gilded exile in France in May of 1911 only five months after I had myself “re-elected” to the presidency for a seventh term.

    My name is ______________________.

  2. I led the democratic movement against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in 1910 as the candidate for the Partido Anti Re-electionista. I came from a wealthy family and had studied abroad. I was a non-drinker, a non-smoker and a vegetarian. I held seances with the dead and was fond of esoteric philosophies. I stood only 5'2" and at first nobody took me seriously.

    I saw that my country was desperately lacking in both freedom and justice under the Diaz dictatorship. My campaign rallies attracted larger and larger crowds. People dared to think change was possible after so many years of inertia. I was thrown in jail, escaped and fled to The United States. My supporters launched the Mexican Revolution on November 20, 1910 and I was elected president the following year.

    Once I became president I was attacked by conservatives for being too radical and by radicals for being too conservative. I was betrayed and assassinated by treacherous Army generals in February 1913. The country then fell into another four years of war and chaos as various warlords vied to fill my position.

    My name is ____________________.

  3. I led rebel forces in Southern Mexico during the long years of the Mexican Revolution and became a symbol of the agrarian struggle.

    Before the Revolution, I had worked as a trick rider for a rodeo in Mexico City. Every time I returned to my native village of Anenecuilco in the state of Morelos I saw that the local hacienda had expanded while our communal lands had shrunk. And always, the authorities were indifferent to our concerns.

    We were all peasants. We first fought against Porfirio Diaz, then Madero, then Huerta, and later we made common cause against Carranza. We seized many of the haciendas in Morelos and worked them collectively. Always our goal was the same: that the land should be returned to its rightful owners: those who work it.

    I was ambushed and assassinated by government agents while attending peace talks in April 1919. I was 39 years-old.

    My name is ______________________.

  4. I was born into poverty on a large hacienda in Northern Mexico. When I was 16, the owner of the hacienda raped my 12 year-old sister. I killed the son of a bitch and fled to the mountains; an outlaw for life. It was then that I changed my name to the one the world remembers me by.

    A cattle rustler for years, I threw my lot in with Madero in 1910 and led a guerrilla army against the government of Porfirio Diaz. My army, which was called La División del Norte, was famous for its surprise attacks and its daring calvary charges. And, I always rode at the front of the charge.

    We won many battles and by 1914 we controlled most of Northern Mexico. That was the year that the famous Gringo journalist John Reed came to Mexico and rode with our army. He wrote about his experiences in a book called Mexico Insurgente. As I was illiterate, I never read it. But I’ve heard a lot about it.

    Well anyway, our luck took a turn for the worse in 1915. Our enemies acquired machine guns and those daring calvary charges didn’t work so well anymore. We retreated into the mountains of Chihuahua. I was pissed at the Gringos for their occupation of Veracruz. So, I decided to invade the United States.

    I blew away the town of Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916 and was chased back to Mexico by the US Army. I led the Gringos around Northern Mexico for the next couple of years and they were never able to catch me. Once an outlaw always an outlaw.

    I am remembered as a bandit in the United States and as a revolutionary hero in Mexico. I was assassinated by the Mexican government in 1923.

    My name is ___________________.

  5. I was a radical journalist and a prominent anarchist labor leader who was jailed by Porfirio Diaz and then exiled to the United States. While in exile I signed a manifesto opposing World War I and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I died in a US federal prison in 1922.

    My name is ________________________.

  6. I was the American ambassador to Mexico in 1913 who orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically-elected Madero government.

    Formerly a corporate lawyer, I was deeply troubled that Mexico’s new government was insensitive to the needs and concerns of American investors. I met with disgruntled Mexican generals at my ambassador’s residence and assured them that they would have the full support of the US government once they came to power. In February 1913 the generals launched a coup against the Madero government. They captured both the president and the vice-president and had them assassinated. What a pity.

    My name is_________________________.

  7. I was a general in the Mexican Army who led the overthrow of the Madero government in February 1913. I promised to restore law and order (and a stable investment climate) at whatever cost.

    I was a heavy drinker, a gambler and a drug addict. My aides often had to track me down in my favorite saloons to sign important orders and decrees. The American ambassador promised me U.S. support. But at the last minute the new U.S. president (Woodrow Wilson) balked and I was left holding the bag. All the various revolutionary armies united against me and marched on Mexico City. I fled the country in disgrace in 1914. I died in Texas in 1916 of cirrhosis of the liver.

    My name is ________________________.

  8. I was a lawyer and a journalist from the Yucatan who was elected as Madero's vice-president in 1911. In 1913 we were both captured and assassinated when the military launched a coup against our government. A Metro station in the center of Mexico City where Lines 1&2 converge is named in my honor. Lots of petty theft goes on there. So be careful.

    My name is _________________________.

  9. I was a writer/adventurer who came to Mexico in 1914 to die.

    I previously had fought in the U.S. Civil War and was accepted as a 71 year-old volunteer in Pancho Villa's army. I disappeared without a trace in the desert of Northern Mexico later that year. Carlos Fuentes wrote a book about me (The Old Gringo) which Hollywood later turned into a hit movie starring Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda and Edward James Olmos.

    My name is _________________________.

  10. I was a doctor in Villa’s army. In 1915 I published Los de Abajo(“The Downtrodden”), a classic novel about the desperate courage and the nihilistic passions of the downtrodden peasants who were swept up by the Revolution.

    My name is_______________________.

  11. I was the self-proclaimed "Primer Jefe" ("First Chief") of the Revolution.

    I was governor of the state of Coahuila in 1913 when Madero was assassinated. A politician and an opportunist, I immediately tried to put myself in charge though I had little zest for battle. I followed my army in a private train car and had a personal chef who prepared all my meals. My opponents laughed at me and called me “Old Goat Whiskers”.

    My forces joined up with Alvaro Obregón’s Army of the Northwest to fight first the usurper Huerta and then against the extremists, Villa and Zapata. I became president in 1917 and called a Constitutional Convention.

    The Convention went much further than I intended. The Constitution of 1917 curtailed the power of the church, limited the President to one term, declared all subsoil mineral wealth (namely oil) belongs to the State, promised agrarian reform, free public education, a shorter workday and much, much more. But like most of my successors, I saw to it that these promises remained just that.

    I was ousted from power in 1920. I fled Mexico City with 5,000,000 pesos in gold and silver. My 21-car train entourage was sabotaged before I could cross the mountains to the Port of Veracruz. I fled into the lushly forested mountains. But, I was then tracked down by my enemies to a small mountain hamlet and assassinated where I had passed out exhausted inside a peasant's dirt-floor hut.

    Sometimes all the gold and silver in the world isn’t worth a dime.

    My name is _________________________.

  12. When the revolutionary violence subsided in 1920, I was the one who came out on top. In the end, however, maintaining peace or even stability proved to be elusive.

    A native of Sonora, I was the one-armed general who led the Army of the Northwest in support of the Carranzistas during the latter part of the Revolution.

    Villa and Zapata held the upper hand in 1914 after the traitor Huerta was deposed. Our army, however, regrouped in Veracruz and in 1915 we defeated Villa at the Battle of Celaya. Villa fled to the mountains of Chihuahua and he returned to being the outlaw he had previously had been.

    We entered Mexico City in 1917, thus ending the long years of revolutionary warfare. I was president of Mexico from 1920 to 1924 and was elected president again in 1928. The people trusted me more, I always said, because they knew I only had one hand with which to rob whereas the other politicians had two. Lamentably, I was assassinated by a young religious fanatic while I celebrated my victory over dinner at a Mexico City restaurant. Oh amigo...

    My name is________________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part VII: Modern Mexico: Arts and Letters


Mexican art flourished and took on its own distinctive style in the decades after the Revolution. Here are some of the leading figures in Mexico’s cultural re-awakening.

CHOICES: a. David Siquieros   b. Octavio Paz   c. Jose Clemente Orozco   d. Diego Rivera   e. Frida Kahlo   f. Jose Vascancelos   g. Carlos Fuentes   h. Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo)

  1. I was Mexico’s Education Secretary and de facto culture czar in the 1920s while my country was experiencing a cultural Renaissance. The Revolution was finally over. A new society was emerging, and everybody had something to say.

    I saw to it that the best muralists were commissioned to paint murals on the walls of public buildings so that my people could learn about their history and their culture whether they were literate or not.

    I was a passionate believer in public education. Always my people were raised to be ignorant like donkeys. Now, we were opening schools in the most remote parts of the country and printing millions of textbooks in new government printing houses. As soon as a child mastered the basics of reading, I made sure they were issued the Greek classics — Plato, Aristotle, Homer, etc. Many people said I was crazy. But I was certain that Mexicans were just as capable as anyone else of understanding the world’s greatest ideas.

    My name is ______________.

  2. I was a painter who became convinced by the turn of the century that Mexico needed a new art; one that was inspired by what was native and muralist in form. We could learn from the Europeans but we shouldn't blindly imitate them.

    Mexico had a long, rich tradition of muralism dating back to the paintings that were done on the walls of temples in Pre-Columbian times. I was further inspired by the great paintings of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel that I witnessed while traveling in Italy. What if we began to once again do paintings that were epic in size and scope?

    I was one of the first artists to ask to paint on walls. And when I returned from Europe in 1903 and first lectured on this theme, I created an artistic sensation in Mexico. Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros were among the young artists who listened closely to what I had to say.

    The flowering of Muralism was delayed for a decade by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. It was a time when men carried rifles instead of paintbrushes. Only after the Revolution did everything fall into place.

    The new society that emerged from the Revolution was bubbling with energy. The government had to find some way to make good on all its revolutionary rhetoric. If it couldn't or wouldn’t deliver a revolutionary utopia, it could at least encourage the country’s best artists to offer the masses a vision of the revolutionary promise being fulfilled sometime in the future. Freed from financial worries, talented artists could do their best work. Thus over the next 20 years, the muralist idea that I first proposed found its fullest expression and gained worldwide acclaim.

    My name is________________.

  3. I was an artist who experienced life as pain. But, I always found redemption in my paintbrush.

    I was born with polio. And when I was 18 years-old, I was impaled through my uterus on a trolley car railing during a freak traffic accident. I underwent surgery 40 times during my 47 years on this Earth.

    My father was a photographer and I was a natural model. My most famous works are self-portraits. With my jet black hair, high cheekbones, austere facial expressions, and the colorful, flowing native dresses I preferred to wear, I conveyed the beauty, the sorrow, the pride and the dignity of my people.

    Other artists like Orozco, Siquieros and my husband Diego Rivera were painting vast panoramic murals in the 1920s &’30s. But I kept my focus within a much narrower range. I always felt more comfortable painting myself. After all, whom did I know better?

    I was known more during my life for being Diego’s wife. Since I died in 1954, I have gained critical acclaim for my own work. The house we lived in (Casa Azul) is now a museum located at Calle Londres #247. It is open from Tuesday through Sunday in Coyoacan near Metro Viveros on the olive line.

    My name is_____________.

  4. I was a painter and a revolutionary who was jailed and exiled numerous times by the same government that awarded me grants to paint murals on public buildings. I was first jailed in 1910 at the age of 13 for participating in a students’ strike against the way art was taught at the National School of Fine Arts. I later joined the revolutionary forces and rose to the rank of captain. More than the other muralists, my works conveyed a sense of motion across time and space.

    Along with Diego Rivera and other painters, I founded the Mexican Communist Party in 1922. I was a loyal Stalinist and in 1940 I led a failed machine gun attack against Leon Trotsky’s home outside of Mexico City. I was jailed for the last time in 1958 for “subversion”. I was imprisoned for six years before being exiled to Cuba. I died in 1978, still a devoted revolutionary.

    I would turn 100 years-old this year if I was still alive. And if I was, I would either be in Chiapas or be in jail.

    My name is________________________.

  5. I was a painter who became famous in the 1920s and ’30s for my epic murals that ranged across the vast panorama of Mexican history.

    I passed The Mexican Revolution in Paris learning my craft. I studied the history of art as well and pondered how since the end of the Middle Ages the artist had become detached from the community and instead become a pawn and a flatterer of the bourgeoisie. I believed that art must serve and be accessible to the people. I took great inspiration from the massive paintings of Michelangelo and Bonazzo Gozzoli. I too wanted to create an art that was in unison with public architecture.

    When I returned to Mexico in 1922, the new government was encouraging painters to teach our people their history by painting large murals on the walls of public buildings. Muralists like myself were some of Mexico’s most celebrated public figures. We were not only teaching history but making it. My murals both celebrated Mexico’s rich indigenous heritage and projected a brighter, revolutionary future when the tyranny of the rich was overthrown at last. Some of my most famous murals can be found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP), the National Palace and the Agricultural College of Chapingo.

    My name is__________________.

  6. I was another one of the great muralists in the 1920s and ’30s. I was more of an iconoclast than either Rivera or Siquieros. I saw war for the carnage that it is and never glorified it in my paintings.

    I was equally distrustful of any person or group who sought to impose systematic solutions on all of society. The poorest people were the ones who were inevitably hurt the most. In my work I rejected politicos and generals and clerics just as readily as I did the capitalists and the imperialists who had always been the ruin of our country.

    Though I lived in Mexico City most of my life, my most powerful works can be found in Guadalajara at Hospicio Cabanas, at the University of Guadalajara and at the palace of the state government.

    My name is ______________________________.

  7. I am a poet/essayist whose most celebrated work is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), an exploration of the complex and contradictory Mexican psyche. I resigned my post as Mexico’s ambassador to India in 1968 following the Tlatelolco Massacre. I was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

    My name is ______________________.

  8. I am one of Mexico’s greatest living authors. Some of my most famous works are The Death of Artemio Cruz, The Old Gringo and Tierra Nostra.

    My name is _________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico

Part VIII: Modern Mexico: Politics


Mexico’s history is one of dramatic pendulum swings between chaos and authoritarian control. Thus since the end of the Revolution, Mexico has had what is now the world’s longest running one-party state.

Mexico experienced rapid economic growth from the 1940s to the 1970s and became a modern nation. The oddly-named Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) managed to project itself as all things to all people and control every corner of the country. Mexico stumbled badly in the 1980s and ’90s as it encountered the forces of globalization. Economic crisises and IMF-mandated austerity packages followed one after another. The one-party monolith began to crumble as the people began to hold it accountable for its errors. As of 1997, the PRI is just barely in control and is being challenged from many directions. Mexico’s search for democracy and social justice continues as it approaches the 21st Century.

CHOICES: a. Subcommandante Marcos   b. Fidel Velasquez   c. Gustavo Ordaz Diaz  d. Ernesto Zedillo   e. Carlos Salinas de Gortari   f. Lazaro Cardenas   g. Luis Donaldo Colosio   h. Gen. Absalom Castellanos Dominguez   i. Comandante Ramona   j. Plutarco Elias Calles   k. Raul Salinas de Gortari   l. Cuauhtémoc Cardenas   m. Jose Francisco Ruiz Messieu   n. Lucio Cabañas   o. Adolfo Lopez Mateos   p. Mario Ruiz Messieu   q. Jose Lopez Portillo   r. Gen. Jose Gutierrez Rebollo   s. Samuel Ruiz Garcia

  1. I was a general during the Mexican Revolution and later president from 1924 to 1928. After all the assasinations during the 1920s, I decided it was time to unite all the contending revolutionary jefes in one overarching political party. What would be the point of fighting and winning a revolution if we were all just going to kill one another off? Better to settle our disputes among ourselves. We founded the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) in 1929. 68 years later, it is still the ruling party of Mexico.

    My name is _______________________.

  2. I am considered Mexico’s greatest president of the 20th Century.

    When I became president in 1934, Mexico was caught in the midst of the global economic depression that began in 1929. I broke up the large latifundas and redistributed more acres of land under the Agrarian Reform Laws than all the other presidents before me.

    I broke the power of the foreign oil companies by nationalizing all their holdings in March 1938. Following a policy of import substitution, I invested heavily in state industries and laid the groundwork for the robust economic growth that followed from the 1940s to the 1970s. I am a symbol of the Mexican Revolution’s commitment to social and economic justice.

    My name is __________________________.

  3. I was President of Mexico in the early 1960s when Mexico was the only country in Latin America that maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba. In return, the Cubans agreed not to support guerrilla movements in Mexico as they were doing elsewhere in Latin America. The North Americans were pissed. But, that was their problem.

    My name is ______________________.

  4. I was the president of Mexico when the student movement broke out in the summer and fall of 1968.

    The students were led by troublemakers. They didn’t understand that a developing country like Mexico needs order and stability in order to attain progress. The Olympics were coming to Mexico City that October. I wasn’t going to have all that chaos broadcast on worldwide television.

    On the night of October 2, 1968, I sent in the troops and the Massacre of Tlatelolco followed. Nobody knows how many students were killed. Maybe 500. Maybe 2,000. We weren’t counting. The Olympics began a week later in a climate of peace and tranquility.

    My name is ___________________.

  5. I was Mexico’s last populist president. I presided over the country in the late ’70s when we were awash in borrowed petro-dollars. And I bought off social discontent by practicing “the politics of abundance”; throwing money in all directions.

    New oil reserves were constantly being discovered. OPEC had jacked the price of oil up to $35 per barrel in 1979. Our future seemed unlimited!

    Then in 1982, the price of oil crashed to $10 per barrel and we were fucked. The bill came in and we were broke. The peso collapsed and the IMF took over managing the economy. I turned this mess over to my hand-picked successor and went off into a gilded retirement. It was estimated that I had pocketed $1,000,000,000 during my six years in office. The Politics of Abundance was nothing if not good to me.

    My name is ___________________.

  6. I am a snakeoil salesman with a PHD in economics from Harvard.

    During my presidency (1988-1994), I reduced trade barriers, encouraged foreign investment and sold off hundreds of state-owned enterprises. The number of billionaires in our country increased from 2 to 26.

    Though I ruled with an iron hand and it was widely believed that I won the presidency via electoral fraud, both Republican and Democratic presidents have hailed me as a model reformer. The crowning achievement of my presidency was the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the U.S. and Canada.

    I kept the peso artificially overvalued during the final year of my presidency, and the country was flooded with a bonanza of cheap imported goods. I accomplished this by using treasury reserves to buy up the peso on international markets. Just as I promised, Mexico was living like a First World country. For all my good work, the U.S. was touting me to be the first president of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

    Regrettably, the country went bankrupt three weeks after I left office and the peso was devalued by over 100%. I had emptied $25,000,000,000 out of the treasury in order to prop up the peso during my final year in office. I tried to convince everybody it was my successor's fault. But no one believed me.

    Since then, my older brother has been arrested for masterminding the assassination of the secretary general of our own political party. We also have both been implicated in the assassination of the Cardinal of Guadalajara and a leading presidential candidate.

    We also have been accused of siphoning millions of dollars out of the country and of being closely involved with drug cartels. We are presently under investigation for drug smuggling by a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas.

    I am currently living in self-imposed exile in Ireland. I may yet make a comeback. Don’t believe what the critics say. My people love me.

    My name is ______________________.

  7. Three years ago I was the older brother and right hand man of the President of Mexico. Now, I am the most famous resident of the Altamoya Maximum Security Prison.

    I am accused of being the “intellectual author” (and I always thought you had to write a lot of boring books to be an intellectual author) of the murder of the former secretary general of my own political party. It has also been said that I was involved in other political murders, that I protected the drug cartels (for a fee of $50,000,000 per month) and that I pocketed tens of millions of dollars while running CONASUPO, the food distribution program that my brother set up to help poor people.

    The only evidence that my critics have for this final charge is that my wife was caught in Switzerland trying to withdraw $84,000,000 from our joint banking account.

    My brother’s enemies are just trying to get at him by abusing me. My name is ________________________.

  8. I have a graduate degree in economics from Yale and I was elected president of Mexico in 1994 on the slogan of “For the Wellbeing of Your Family”. Three weeks after I was inaugurated president, the country became insolvent, the peso was massively devalued, the international financial markets freaked out, and the economy took its worst downturn since The Great Depression.

    All of this, of course, was my predecessor's fault. Since then, I have spent most of my time kissing ass with the IMF (International Monetary Fund), Wall Street and the U.S. Department of Treasury. I will be the president of Mexico until December 1, 2000.

    My name is ____________________________.

  9. I was the frontrunner to be the next president of Mexico when I was assassinated on March 23, 1994 while campaigning in broad daylight in Tiajuana.

    I was a poor boy from Sonora who had earned an Ivy League degree in economics. I had been the director of Solidaridad, a popular patronage program, before becoming a presidential candidate. I spoke out strongly against the war in Chiapas a few days before I was assassinated. Three years later my campaign manager is president and my case remains unsolved. I heard that Oliver Stone wants to make a movie about this.

    My name is _____________________.

  10. I was the secretary general of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) when I was assassinated in the fall of 1994. I was also the ex-brother-in-law of Carlos and Raul Salinas. Raul now sits in prison accused of plotting my murder. I should’ve treated his sister better.

    My name is ______________________.

  11. I was the assistant attorney general who covered up the assassination of my brother in 1994. I later fled to The United States where I was apprehended at the Newark (N.J) International Airport with $149,000 in my briefcase. I am currently under investigation by a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas. I am suspected of being apart of an international drug smuggling ring that includes members of the Salinas family.

    My name is _______________________.

  12. I am a former milk truck driver who has been the leader of Mexico’s official, government-sponsored labor movement since the 1940s. I am noted for my cigars, my dark-tinted glasses and my incredible longevity. My critics insist that I retire. But why should I? I am only 98 years-old.

    My name is _____________________.

  13. I am an Army general who was put in charge of the National Institute for the Combat of Drugs (INCD) in December 1996. I was hailed by Mexican and U.S. officials as an impeccable soldier who would be the perfect man to lead Mexico’s effort in the War on Drugs. 10 weeks later I was arrested, accused of taking payments from the Juarez Drug Cartel.

    People in both our countries tend to believe that the Armed Forces are the one incorruptible institution capable of dealing swiftly and effectively with the drug cartels. They should think again.

    My name is _____________________.

  14. I was born on May Day 1934, the year my father was elected president.

    With his policies of land reform, and his expropriation of foreign oil interests in 1938, my father became one of the most popular presidents in Mexico’s history. I broke with the ruling party (the PRI) that my father helped to found when I saw that by the mid-1980s it was betraying the principles of economic nationalism and social justice that my father had symbolized.

    I ran as the first serious opposition candidate against the PRI in over 40 years. Most observers believe that I won the elections. I was leading in the vote tally on election night when the government’s vote-counting computer malfunctioned. Two days later the government announced that the ruling party’s candidate had been elected. Ballots were later found around the country in garbage dumps and floating in rivers.

    I ran for the presidency in 1994 and lost again. This year, however, I won by a landslide in Mexico City’s first-ever mayoral election. I will be the frontrunner going into the 2000 presidential elections.

    My name is _____________________.

  15. I am the mysterious, green-eyed leader of the Zapatista guerrilla movement in Chiapas.

    I led the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista para la LIberación Nacional) surprise attack on San Christóbal de Las Casas on New Year’s Day 1994. We gained international attention, and I was thrust into the limelight as the pipe-smoking strategist and public relations spokesman for the Zapatistas.

    I passed 11 years living in the jungles of Chiapas, slowly organizing the Zapatista movement. I speak Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal, and Ch’ol as well as Spanish and English. I always appear in public wearing a ski mask. No one knows who I am or where I came from. At various times it has been said that I am a defrocked Jesuit, a gay poet from San Francisco or a veteran guerrilla who previously fought in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone wants to make a movie about my life, and Benetton has offered me millions of dollars to model its blue jeans. I have refused all offers.

    After New Year’s Day 1994, we fled back into the jungle. We have been engaged in peace talks with the government for three years. The government tried unsuccessfully to ambush and kill me an other Zapatista leaders in February 1995. There are currently 60,000 government soldiers in the state of Chiapas. The government says they are here to provide security for the people of Chiapas. I believe otherwise.

    My name is ___________________.

  16. I was a former Army general who served as the governor of Chiapas from 1982-1988. While I was governor, cattle ranchers gobbled up the best lands, and hundreds of peasant activists were killed.

    I was kidnapped from my mansion by the Zapatistas on New Year’s Day 1994. I was given a life sentence of hard labor, i.e. working in the fields for a daily ration of beans and tortillas. Much to my relief (and many peoples’ disappointment) I was later released by the Zapatistas as a goodwill gesture.

    My name is ______________________.

  17. I am the son of poor migrant farm workers who has been the Bishop of San Christóbal de Las Casas since 1960.

    I have been a leading advocate of Liberation Theology, which emphasizes a “preferential option” for the poor. My enemies call me a Communist. The poor indigenous peoples of Eastern Chiapas call me “Tatic Samuel” (“Our Father Samuel”). I have been mediating peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas for the past three years. When it appeared as if the two sides would go to war again in December 1994, I fasted for 15 days until they both agreed to resume peace talks.

    My name is ______________________.

  18. I was a school teacher who led a guerrilla movement in the mountains of Guerrero (300 miles southwest of Mexico City) from 1967 until I was killed in battle in 1975. Another guerrilla movement (the EPR) started there in 1996. I’m not surprised. After Chiapas, Guerrero is the poorest of Mexico’s 32 states.

    My name is ________________________.

  19. I am a poor, 34 year-old Tzotzil woman who has become a symbol of the struggle of Zapatista women. I was one of the leaders of the 1994 New Year’s Day surprise attack on San Christobal de Las Casas. I became the first Zapatista leader to appear outside of Chiapas when I spoke before the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in Mexico City on October 12, 1996.

    My name is ___________________.

Answers to a Brief, Irreverent History of Mexico


A History of the Mexican People: Triumphs and Tragedy by Ramon Eduardo Ruiz

La Historia de México (school textbook) by Secretaria de Educacion Publica

Revolution in Mexico: Years of Upheaval, 1910-1940 by James Wilkie

The Mexican Revolution 1910-1920 by R. Conrad Stein

A Short History of Mexico by Seldon Rodman

The War of Conquest: How It Was Fought Here in Mexico by Fr. Bernadino Sahagun

Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas by George Collier

Ejido Organization in Mexico, 1934-1976 by Dana Markiewicz

Some of my material comes as well from personal notes I took at the National History Museum in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.

Other Books of Interest

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Fr. Bartólome De Las Casas

Revolution of the Hanged by B. Traven

Mexico Insurgente by John Reed

Barbarous Mexico by John Kenneth Turner

Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack

The Downtrodden by Mariano Azuela

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene

One Man’s Mexico by John Lincoln

Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

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